With the benefit of a decade of retrospect, what “Game of Thrones” was able to accomplish in its eight seasons looks even more surprising.
The HBO fantasy drama series, which debuted April 17, 2011, was the beneficiary of good timing in at least two ways. For one thing, it slotted neatly within a span of time defined, in our offscreen lives, by the world sinking into chaotic authoritarianism. “Thrones” may have come from source material dating back to the 1990s, but its concerns felt current. What’s more, its run straddled a period of splintering across the media landscape, with the dominance of media players like HBO threatened by streaming upstarts. Its old-school mass appeal was notable in its early going and beyond comparison by its end. At its start, “Thrones” gained clout thanks to its airing on HBO, the undisputed ruler of prestige TV. By the time it wrapped in 2019, “Thrones” sat at the top of the TV heap in a manner that looked a bit like the reign of Robert Baratheon, the king at the show’s outset. It held sway over a fractious and uncertain landscape, and its absence would give rise to a massive power struggle.
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Indeed, what has happened in the time since “Thrones” left the air suggests that television executives learned little from the particulars of its success. TV platforms are still grasping for another smash of its scale. Disney Plus has pleased fans by extending the Star Wars and Marvel universes with series including “The Mandalorian,” “WandaVision,” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” all of which trade on familiar characters and styles. And Amazon Prime Video has long sought a “Thrones”-style hit, and is at work on adaptations of both “The Wheel of Time” and “The Lord of the Rings,” two fantasy series with passionate fans. That the latter of these has already been brought to the screen in the films by Peter Jackson, and that there seems little left to say, is of no consequence to a streaming service with money to spend and a desire for massive shows with global appeal.
No one has seen a frame of either Amazon series yet. But the news of both shows, like the greenlighting of many Marvel and Lucasfilm TV series, felt like a sort of reverse-engineering that “Thrones” specifically was not. “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the George R. R. Martin novel series upon which it was based, was a popular and in-demand piece of intellectual property, but not a surefire hit. Attempts to bring it to the screen in the past ran aground on its scale and its complexity, as did a famously botched first try at a pilot, directed by “Spotlight” helmer Tom McCarthy. The first episode that eventually aired was a testament to HBO’s patience, a luxury that the network enjoyed because of its focus on making every program an event. That episode also showed off a confident, fully-formed idea of how Martin’s fiction could work as television — this was a universe in which narrative sprawl meant more opportunities for viewers to meet characters who were carefully-thought-through and elegantly communicated.
This sense that the show always knew what it was doing may have abated by the final season of “Thrones,” which was met with mixed-to-negative reviews. (I’d maintain that, while not consistently up to the show’s standard, the last run of episodes is not as bad as its harshest critics say.) Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that there’s been a sort of collective forgetting of the “Thrones” rise, which was earned not on the basis of a notorious title but through meticulous attention to detail and a mercenary willingness to subvert audience expectations. That’s an impulse that projects aiming for the scale of “Thrones” will have to resist — giving viewers exactly what they might seem to want. That’s an especially tempting impulse, too, for creators working on shows that only exist because of pre-existing popularity and fan demand.
It’s hard to imagine a “Thrones”-style success happening again — in part because if it occurred on a streamer, we’d never know. Part of the strange wonder of Benioff and Weiss’ series was the manner in which its zeitgeist buzz was matched with a quantifiable audience. To watch the show was to be a part of a movement, which, as any of Daenerys’ Unsullied could tell you, has its charms. But it also was the end result of an attempt to make a television show, and not a piece of intellectual property.
“WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” seem crystalline examples of where television on a “Thrones”ian scale is headed: Defaulting to a sort of lab-tested, risk-averse norm in order to avoid alienating any potential viewer of easily consumed IP. (Given “WandaVision’s” quirk and experimentation early on, its reversal to a story told in precisely the manner Marvel usually does was a disappointment, and a lesson about what to expect from Disney going forward.) “Game of Thrones” was mass entertainment that — in comparison to current streaming world-beaters — genuinely pushed its audience. By the end, elements of its story and how it was told pushed them away. But, at least to a viewer nostalgic for the distant world of a decade ago, that seems preferable to a story that easily and frictionlessly delivers exactly what viewers crave.
Which raises the question of its spinoffs, one of which, “House of the Dragon,” is going forward, while others, including a planned prequel series meant to star Naomi Watts, were cancelled. No network would turn down an opportunity to continue a brand as well-established as “Thrones,” least of all the current iteration of HBO — which, under AT&T’s corporate governance, is ramping up in quantity. The temptation to precisely match the mode Benioff and Weiss established must be immense, and may, perhaps, account for what looks from the outside like dithering and delay. But the best way to protect and extend the legacy of “Thrones” would be for HBO, and networks like it, to spend the time and money to make something that looks unlike what came before. Maybe that takes place in Westeros, but more likely the next show with a “Thrones”-sized impact is going to be set somewhere we couldn’t yet guess. It’s waiting there for someone with imagination and the resources of a TV outlet that believes in its talent to bring it to life.
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